“Just make it about something!” has been my constant refrain as wave after wave of isekai mush has washed over me for the past decade. Enough with the bland, soothing pap intentionally designed to be as unchallenging and cliche as possible! Begone, mean-spirited revenge fantasies. And don’t even get me started about all the series with slavery. The second season of Re:Zero: Starting Life in Another World may beat you over the head with its themes with the subtlety of a hammer, but at least those themes are there.
To be honest, I didn’t really like the first season of Re:Zero. I found Subaru too obnoxious and self-centered, Rem too fawning, and the world too indulgent. While I didn’t particularly enjoy what I had seen, I at least found the story and world interesting. With the second season, perhaps there was a shift in the focus, but I realized about midway through that I didn’t just find it interesting… I enjoyed it. God help me, I liked it.
It probably helps that Subaru steps out of the spotlight for a significant amount of the series, allowing other characters to step in, particularly in the latter half of the season. Strange as it means to be, this is a sign of Subaru’s growth as a person. In an early episode, Subaru undertakes one of Sanctuary’s trials, putting him in a false world where he’s back home with his parents. Through this, we learn why he is the way he is: his father is a leader in the community, and Subaru always felt pressured to keep up. When he hit a point where things no longer came easily to him, he acted the clown instead. Finally, when his peers weren’t interested in his schtick anymore, he withdrew, unable to conceive of himself as likable in his own right. That was what made him so insufferable at first; if he wasn’t the protagonist of this new world, he was nothing. Now that he understands that the people standing by his side care about him as a human, he can respect the humanity and agency of others instead of constantly trying to force himself into the main character role.
Plus, Rem spends the entire season in a coma. Sorry, Rem fans. I find her boring and did not miss her one bit.
With Subaru and Rem taking up less of the oxygen, more runtime gets spent on more interesting, dynamic characters. This includes ones who have been around since the beginning, such as Roswaal and Ram, and new ones like Garfiel and Echidna. The new cast does occasionally carry the stink of harem dynamics — there it goes, treating Subaru like the center of the universe again — but for the most part, they have enough going on in their own right that I don’t feel like their stories are being completely subsumed by their affection for the protagonist. In fact, for the season’s final act, Emilia spends far more time as the focus than anyone else.
As strenuously as Emilia may have objected to Subaru obsessing over her and not giving her a chance to do things independently, a major aspect of her character is her emotional reliance on Puck, even as she struggles to trust others. Even as she objects to Subaru swooping in to save her, she accomplishes fairly little on her own. In the first season, I always saw that as damseling, but now, whether it was the intention from the start or emergent once the story was underway, it is a weakness she must overcome. Watching her grow was immensely satisfying.
And Emilia is hardly alone in this. To be honest, the plot of Re:Zero‘s second season can be hard to follow. There’s a lot of jumping around in time and location, and every character gets a turn to have their backstory revealed and discussed. I ended up just sitting back and hoping everything would become clear in the end as each episode washed over me. What was the deal with the snow? Why were the mabeasts such a big deal when the story was about escaping Sanctuary? What was going on over at Roswaal’s mansion? Maybe when the third season starts, that will come back to bite me in the butt — and I am seriously considering watching the third season of Re:Zero, a sentence I never thought I’d say — but for the time being, the finer details of the what and why take a backseat to the larger picture.
All of the confusing presentation, all the shifting back and forth between time and place, weaves together to make a beautiful picture with a singular theme: to move forward from trauma, one must look toward their unchangeable past as well as looking clear-eyed into an uncertain future. Everyone comes from somewhere, whether it’s Subaru’s inferiority complex or Otto being forced to hide his linguistic powers; any wounds incurred cannot be undone, only healed. The future is unknowable, and seeking a predetermined path will only limit you. Accepting both these things is the only way to self-actualization.
Crunchyroll has seen fit to release this in a limited-edition set, even as their physical media releases become vanishingly rare. The chipboard box is handsome enough, but the extras are overall underwhelming. The art cards are cute, but those are a given in box sets these days. The stickers are supposedly reusable, but I haven’t tested out their durability because there’s nothing I particularly want to plaster with a plain bust of Frederica. The art book is particularly disappointing: some background art, genga, and character model sheets, with nothing that can’t be easily found online or anything that would illuminate hidden aspects of the show to interested viewers. The on-disc extras are just trailers and creditless openers. Nothing about it justifies the extra $20 over the standard edition.
Before, the kindest thing I could say about Re:ZERO -Starting Life in Another World- was that it had more interesting storytelling than pretty much any post-2010 entry into the genre. Now, the second season has seriously made me consider going back and starting again from the first season so I can pick up callbacks and continuing plot threads I missed on this watch. If you, like me, had doubts, I urge you to consider giving it a shot. However, if you’re an established fan trying to choose between the limited and standard editions, get the standard edition and spend that $20 on something else. A nice meal out, maybe.